Monday, July 7, 2014

Life Itself (***1/2)

Directed by Steve James


When Roger Ebert died in April of last year, I wrote a long piece about it on this blog in which I hoped to put across that there is not a single writer that I have read more and not a single one that has had more influence on my own film criticism. I went to film school. I read Andre Bazin, Gilles Delleuze, Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag, and all the rest of the film crit heavy-hitters that are force-fed into the minds of students hoping to be the next Kubrick or Truffaut. We never read Ebert in any of our classes, nor would I try to make the case that his reviews should be studied, but if you really do consider yourself somebody who loves the art of cinema, then his reviews (all of them, the entire catalogue from 1967-2013, are available at his website) should be appointment reading. His knowledge when it came to movies was just as vast as Bazin and Sontag, and yet no one was as good as he was at truly articulating why a certain film just resonated with an audience more than others. He had the ability to explain to you why you loved the movie you just saw, but he did it while sounding more like a friend, as opposed to a professor. Ebert's writing style may seem too populist for the hardcore academics, but Ebert would claim that you never had to be a genius to be a enjoy a good movie.

Life Itself is the name of Ebert's anthological memoir, published a year and a half before he passed. Like all Ebert's work, it reads easily and beautifully. It breaks itself up into short, punchy chapters, each focusing on a specific person, place or idea, without much conscience placed toward sticking to a strict structure or arc in telling his life story. It was written after his devastating surgery in 2006, which left him without the ability to eat, drink or speak - he would eventually completely lose his lower mandible. The pieces within his memoir are written with the sort of wounded reflection of a man who's most active years are behind him, who knows he's closer to the end than he is to the beginning. That he lived through its eventual publishing was probably seen as a great achievement on his end. The documentary, which shares the memoir's title, hopes to further push our understanding of the world's most famous film critic. To expand it past the singular view of just Ebert, to help us understand that this was a movie figure that was bigger than most of the filmmakers that he chose to champion. The film is directed by Steve James, a formidable documentarian who got his breakthrough after Ebert and his partner Gene Siskel gave his 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams such an enthusiastic response. James responds here by giving Ebert a touching tribute, probably the most sentimental documentary that any film critic is sure to receive.

The film covers most of the moments that Ebert discusses in his book, including his bout with alcoholism that lasted till he quit cold turkey in 1979, his love for the city of Chicago, his marriage to the wonderfully committed Chaz and his relationships with filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese and Ramin Bahrani. But there are two storylines which take up a majority of Life Itself, the first one of course being his partnership with Gene Siskel. All of Ebert's fame is obviously owed to the two men's pioneering show Sneak Previews which later became At The Movies. The two men were, at their peak, inseparable as a cultural entity, and yet time has shown that their relationship was more complex than a weekly, half-hour show may have seemed to showcase. They worked for rival papers - Ebert for the working class Chicago Sun-Times, Siskel for the pristine Chicago Tribune - and neither seemed to have very much esteem for the other. Their on-screen chemistry was often a reflection of off-screen tension, professional competition leading the way toward television magic. Steve James shines more light on their rivalry than any other piece I've read or seen, though it's obvious to all that the key to their success, no matter how petty their arguments, was their fundamental respect for one another.

The other major moment covered in Life Itself is his illness late in life. The harrowing details of Ebert's numerous surgeries and quality of life have been covered in various places, including Ebert's own blog where he took to spending most of his time after losing his basic mode of communication. But James is able to capture footage within the hospital rooms and the Ebert home, to show us footage of the actual day-to-day struggle that the illness put on the famed critic and his wife, Chaz. It's one thing to read about Ebert's loss of his mandible and see pictures of it in Esquire Magazine, but to see his limp lower jaw hanging under his front teeth like a rubber band is something else completely. In his final days, Ebert's illness had left him in a childlike state of helplessness, unable to participate in some of the basic joys of human existence. And yet, James is quick to show his effort and perseverance; his unrelenting smile and good attitude. When life had dealt him a shitty hand, he decided that he still enjoyed the game and wanted to keep playing. Ebert wrote more than ever when he was at his most incapacitated, and I think that may be the very best writing he had ever done. His master storytelling - his ability to sound authoritatively intelligent without condescension - made him more than a critic to most. It was almost like he was talking specifically to every one of us.

I'm completely biased when it comes to Ebert. He's one of my all-time favorite writers, even outside of film critics. So perhaps my judgment is a bit altered when it comes to reviewing this film. It's almost entirely a puff piece, aggrandizing a man who did little more than write about movies for a living. The film often makes Siskel seem like a cruel bully, even if most reports have always said that in their career-long war with each other, Ebert gave just as much as he got. But there's a reason why Ebert gets the sentimental treatment that Pauline Kael or Gene Siskel do not receive. His writing was completely without vanity. Even if he was showing off with his sarcasm, it felt like a natural procession and not like someone trying to show how much more he knew than you. He saw great films as something that could be enjoyed by all people, and not just intellectuals. Knowing how to talk about movies doesn't mean that you enjoy movies any more than your aunt who goes to the movies once a year. And that is the feeling that Steve James gets across with Life Itself, that Ebert loved the people, and took his responsibility toward them incredibly seriously. Life Itself is not the first nor very close to being the best documentary ever made about a famous man. But it's hard to think of another one that could have touched me more.

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